The neon lights inside the Rainbow Cafe have not only stayed on for 60 years — they have no off switch.
“You’ve got to hit the circuit breaker to turn them off,” said Steve McGee, who has owned the bar with his wife, Joanne for 14 years.
One of the reasons the McGees keep the 1940s-era lights on 24/7 at the Pendleton Main Street bar is to preserve the bulbs. Since the glass and metal inside expand and contract at different rates with heat changes, turning them on and off wears them out faster.
Ed Miltenberger, owner of Sign Men Neon Co., said the restaurant has about 45 feet of neon lining its ceilings and walls. Each fixture has its own transformer.
The transformers use more energy to convert electricity into the high frequency needed to illuminate the long, colorful tubes when are switched on, Miltenberger said. But once lit, they burn efficiently.
Replacing the lights is expensive. A few years ago it cost the bar $500 to replace one broken 10 foot light above the bar, McGee said.
The orange, white and green neon tubes were originally installed in the 1940s by Miltenberger’s father, J.D. Miltenberger, who started the family sign business. Sign Men has since repaired them only about a dozen times.
Their pastel glow is bright enough to light the bar, and sufficiently mellow to maintain a relaxed atmosphere, Miltenberger said. They are also less expensive to power than fluorescent or incandescent lights.
It’s not just the cost, but a long-standing tradition that keeps the lights running.
“It’s a lot prettier — it’s the ambiance,” McGee said.
The lights — the same colors as the Irish flag — fit well with the Rainbow’s eclectic theme that McGee can only describe as “Irish cowboy.” Two shamrocks light the doorway overhead, leading customers into a rustic-retro haven. Taxidermy, pictures of past Round-Up winners and various western antiques are lit by “Rainbow” signs above the bar and a wall near the pool table. The rest of the bar is lit by four panels of alternating colors lining the ceiling from the front door to the kitchen, which is lit with fluorescent lights.
At closing time, employees only turn off the fluorescent kitchen lights and outdoor signage.
“There is not another Rainbow, I’ll tell you that,” McGee said. “This is a neon place.”
Contact Chris Rizer at email@example.com or 541-966-0836.
This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.